A history of natural history at the Woodlands

On Sunday, the 16th of September, 2012 there was a joint program of the American Entomological Society, the Philadelphia Botanical Club, and the Woodlands Historical Mansion, Cemetery, and Landscape – “Plants and Insects of the Woodlands”.  However, this was by no means the first exploration of the natural history there…

The Woodlands was originally the estate of William Hamilton, where in the late 18th Century he established a large collection of native and imported plants and he lived until his death in 1813, having influenced landscapes through his plant introductions and landscape design (for example the Lombardy poplar, seen in the background of this print here, from 1800, was a Hamilton introduction; the tree of heaven was, as well). [to read more about Hamilton’s extensive plant introductions in the 1780s, one may look here, or at the series of papers in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, (“Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary”), published sequentially in numbers one, two and three of volume 29, in 1905] The estate was purchased and transformed into a cemetery in 1840, and now forms The Woodlands National Landmark District (also quite a bit of the land was sold, including some of it to the University of Pennsylvania). It has been continuously planted with native and introduced plants for over two centuries (and included a commercial greenhouse in the late 1830s and 1840s, run by Henry Dreer) and has been maintained as a cemetery (primarily in the rural cemetery style) for over a century and a half.

The site has an area set aside for a small apiary, with various flowers in bloom in the fall; there is an edge environment along the perimeter, and many older native and imported trees are found throughout the cemetery.

On the 16th of September in 2012, we did a broad survey of the insects and plants (woody and herbaceous) of this site and met in front of the main house at 11 AM – from there we surveyed the insects on the rare zelkova in front of the house, and then looked at other habitats (including the seven English elms, and towards the large mulberry in the back). Here are a couple of the insects we saw (and in addition to the ones shown below, and many others as well, we also saw a Locust Borer beetle on its favored food of goldenrod):

Black Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), the Woodlands, 16 September 2012; photograph by Larry Henderson

Chinese mantid

Chinese Mantid (Tenodera sinensis) on goldenrod, the Woodlands – in the meadow near the apiary, 16 September 2012; photo by Larry Henderson

There are historic records of insects here, as well, well prior to when we were there in 2012, including one from over a hundred years ago of the species of mantis pictured above – documented at the Woodlands in the Entomological News and Proceedings of the Entomological Section of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia: ”A meeting of the American Entomological Society was held October 25, 1906, Dr. Calvert, President, in the Chair.” “Dr Calvert said five specimens of Tenodera sinensis were seen in Woodland cemetery, West Philadelphia, during the second week of October, which had probably been introduced from the adjoining grounds of the Botanical Garden of the University of Pennsylvania” (NB: Tenodera sinensis, of which an example is in the photograph above, has also gone under the name Tenodera aridifolia at other times)  This species, originally from Asia (as its name indicates), was first discovered in North America right here in Philadelphia, by Philip Laurent, as he reports in the Entomological News in June 1898: “The specimen was captured on the 16th of last October at Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, by my neighbor, Mr. Joseph Hindermyer, who found the insect resting on the upper part of one of his tomato vine. Mr. H., not being familiar with the insect’s harmless nature, was afraid to touch it, but at last managed to secure it in a paste-board box, in which condition it was brought to me.” (thanks to Ken Frank, for sending me that reference)  Later, in Mark Vernon Slingerland’s 1900 The Common European Praying Mantis, he writes that “Three or four years ago a specimen or two of a large Mantid were found in the nursery of Thomas Meehan & Sons at Germantown, Pa” and that “Last year it was reported that there was no doubt that this large Oriental Mantid had gained a firm foothold in Meehan’s nursery and was well established there.” But back to the 21st century … we noted there were remnants of insects on the plants, too:

Hemiptera eggs from Z carpinifolia_6333 Sept 16, 2012 Ken Frank photograph

Hemiptera eggs from a leaf of the Woodlands Zelkova carpinifolia, photographed by Ken Frank, 16th of September 2012

We also noted a small, recently planted southern magnolia that is there, right in front of the mansion, and note that this species, though southern, as its name alludes, was here in Hamilton’s time, as we see from a quote from the botanist Francois Andre Michaux’s 1818 North American Sylva (English translation by Hillhouse, 1859): “In the garden of the late Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia, I saw a Big Laurel [=Magnolia grandiflora] which bore uninjured the rigorous climate of this part of Pennsylvania”.  This tree was reasonably commonly planted in Philadelphia by the late 19th century, as Joseph Meehan notes in 1897: “There are several trees about this city some of them of very large size.” (Gardening magazine, Aug 1st, 1897; thanks to Joel Fry for pointing out this reference)

Another tree that was here in Hamilton’s time that was also noted by Michaux was the black gum, also known as the tupelo – latin name: Nyssa sylvatica.  Michaux writes: “In the park of Mr. W. Hamilton at the Woodlands, near Philadelphia, I first observed the Black Gum. The river Schuylkill in this vicinity may be assumed as its northern boundary, though it is common in the woods on the road from Philadelphia to Baltimore.” (Michaux, North American Sylva, vol. 3)  Barton (1818) also notes it as being here, “On the Woodlands.” There was also a white oak (Quercus alba) here with a curious tint: “Some stocks produce acorns of a deep blue color; but I have found only two indications of this variety, one a flourishing tree in the garden of Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia, and the other in Virginia” (Michaux, North American Sylva, vol. 1).  He also noted that Quercus prinoides (“Small Chesnut Oak”) was here: “It grows spontaneously in the park of Mr. W. Hamilton, near Philadelphia.” [However, Keller and Brown (1905) don’t list Q. prinoides as being in Philadelphia, though they do have it for Bucks, Delaware, and Chester counties, and Lancaster and Northampton counties, too] There were also ginkgos there, in Hamilton’s time, this tree having been introduced by him in 1785 – and as John Thomson Faris wrote in 1932, in Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them: ‘To-day one of these is more than six feet in circumference, while the other is more than seven feet, and seventy-five feet tall.  In 1919 Professor Sargent, of the Arnold Arboretum, spoke of these as among the most noteworthy of exotic trees that have been planted in the United States.  Then he said that both trees are males, and come into flower about May twenty-eighth or May thirtieth. “Synchronously with them a female tree three miles away in Overbrook is ready to receive the pollen which may be accidentally blown from the male trees in the Woodlands” ‘ [to read more about the ginkgo, see here: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20141109_A_Philly_tradition_fades__Asian_immigrants_and_ginkgo_picking.html]

There were other plants here as well: “No catalogue of the treasures in Hamilton’s Garden would be complete that fails to mention the papaws, the English elms, the first ailanthus tree planted in America in 1784, whose descendants lived in the garden for many years, the buckeye, the catalpa, the honey-locust and the mossy-cup oak.  Then there were specimens of the princess tree, the cypress, the purple beech, the box elder, the persimmon, and the yellow jasmine which was attached to the mansion.

The rarest species in the garden, of course, except the ginkgo tree, were the four representatives of Zelkova crenata, from the Caucasus.”  (John Thomson Faris (1932); Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them) Plants grown from seeds collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition grew here as well, in Hamilton’s time, as is related by Faris, again, but this time quoting Rodney True (botany professor at Penn): “The seeds collected by the expedition seem in a measure to have been taken in charge by Jefferson, who divided the major part of them into two portions, which were given to Bernard McMahon, a botanist and nurseryman living in Philadelphia, and to William Hamilton of the same place, the wealthy landowner of the famous gardens known as the Woodlands, by whom they were successfully grown.”  (John Thomson Faris, 1932, Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them)

Additionally, historically, there were greenhouse plants here, thousands of them in Hamilton’s time, and beyond, as is described in a 1908 article on Henry Dreer (whom you’ll remember from above ran a commercial operation at the Woodlands), in Gardening magazine (vol. XVI):

“In 1839 the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article eulogizing a fine display the young firm had made at Parkinson’s saloons, then a favorite gathering place for fashionable folk of the city.  It is interesting to note, from the clipping, which is reproduced in the book, that 8,000 dahlias were included in the decorations, the date being September 26, 1839.  These and the other flowers used came from the greenhouses of the firm which were then located on the Hamilton estate, Woodlands, where is now Woodlands cemetery”

According to the history of Dreer’s in their 70th anniversary Garden Book, published in 1908:

“Parkinson’s Restaurant was then at 714 Chestnut Street. Twenty-four years later, Mr. Henry A. Dreer purchased this building where he had made his first public exhibition of flowers and removed thither his seed store which had outgrown its former location. There it has remained until the present day, a period of 45 years. Numerous additions and enlargements have been necessary and a few years ago a large new seed warehouse was erected nearby on Washington Square [this was at 710 South Washington Square – the building is still there] , but the old store with its many associations is still retained.  The ground where it stands was formerly owned by Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution. “

If you go there today, or look on Google Street View, you can see that the building at 714 Chestnut is still there:

If you angle up you can see that top part of 714 Chestnut looks to be quite similar to how it was a century ago, also for 716; and for 714, if you go there in person, you will see that the words you can see in the areas just below the second floor windows (“Seeds” to the left, “Plants” to the right) that were there in 1908 are still there today. The Dreer nurseries ultimately moved to Riverton, NJ (and this was the site of the first known US introduction of the Japanese Beetle, in 1917) – they also had nurseries at 35th and what is now Wallace, in Mantua (as one can see from the 1862 Smedley map here) and also at Belmont Avenue and Ford Road near where Belmont Reservoir is now – this is noted in the 1862-3 Dreer catalog; and can be seen in the 1895 and 1910 Bromley maps where one can see that in 1895 the Dreer nursery was just south of the Belmont Reservoir, where the filter plant now is, and by 1910 it was replaced by that filter plant.

But back to the Woodlands…

There’s historic records of other plants there, as well – in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 Hand-Book of the Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity, we find Artemisia absinthium, Aster paniculatus, Cynanchum nigrum, Duchesnea indica (Indian strawberry), Erigeron philadelphicus, Lamium purpureum (deadnettle), Papaver somniferum, Silphium perfoliatum, Solidago flexicaulis (seen by Thomas Githens [specimen not at PH]), Verbesina alternifolia, Xanthorrhiza apiifolium (“reported at one time along Schuylkill near Woodlands” – the current binomial for this plant is Xanthorrhiza simplicissima, but it is still called yellowroot in the common parlance), and Xanthoxylum americanum, all listed with locality of the Woodlands. [NB: this is a complete list of plants from the Woodlands that are listed in Keller and Brown] And in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences, there is a collection from Sept. 21, 1943, by N. A. Erisman, of Impatiens biflora (=capensis), whose habitat and locality is listed as: “moist ground along streamlet, between University Boulevard & Woodland Cemetery” Also at the Academy are collections of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginica) from the Woodlands, from the 8th of May 1887 (collected by Alexander MacElwee) and the 14th of September 1894 (collected by Thomas S. Githens).

And in William P. C. Barton’s 1818 Compendium Florae Philadelphicae, he notes of Sonchus floridanus (what we would call Lactuca floridana): “On the bank walk of the Schuylkill from Gray’s Ferry to Kingsess Gardens.  Also on the Woodlands near the Schuylkill; not common.”  And of Callitriche heterophylla – “In springs, rivulets and brooks, where the water is clear – on the bank-walk to the Woodlands most abundant”.  And there were carnivorous plants, the round leaved sundew, or Drosera rotundifolia: “Common in sphagnous and cranberry swamps in Jersey, and in bogs this side of the river.  On and near the Woodlands, frequent.”  And another wetland plant, Eriophorum virginicum, Virginian cotton-grass, “In boggy grounds, common.  On the Woodlands, abundant.”  And Heteranthera reniformis, “An aquatic plant, with broad kidney-shaped floating leaves…” that was “In the neighborhood of Philadelphia, common; in the stagnant shallow waters, on yellow clayey soil, opposite to the entrance to the Woodlands, and close to the road, abundant”.  And Pycnanthemum incanum: “It possesses the fine odour of Origanum vulgare.  On a bluff bordering the Schuylkill, Woodlands; abundant.”  And Comandra umbellata – bastard toadflax – which was “Very rare in this neighborhood [i.e, Philadelphia]; I have only found it at the Woodlands along the banks of the Schuylkill.”  And Virginian speedwell, Leptandra virginica, what we’d now call Veronicastrum virginicum – “Somewhat rare, though plentiful where found.  Woodlands, on the bluff of a hill bordering the Schuylkill; and in a shady wood near Powellton.”  And Sisyrinchium anceps (what we would call S. angustifolium), a blue-eyed grass, “In fields, not infrequent, particularly on the Woodlands.”  And Liatris spicata, the blue blazing star “…a very elegant plant.  Flowers purple, in long crowded spikes.  Near Frankford, and on the Woodlands; rare.  Possesses medicinal vitrtues.”  And Elymus villosus (hairy wildrye) – “On the rocky eminences near the Schuylkill, west side, between Market street bridge and the Woodlands.  Rare.”  And Trifolium reflexum (Buffaloe Clover): “On the bluff bordering the Schuylkill, Woodlands ; rare.”  And, Fedia (Valerianella) radiata, or “beaked cornsalad”, as it is called by some, or “Lamb’s lettuce”, as it is called by others (including Barton): “Often met with in fields west of the Schuylkill, but most abundant between the upper-ferry bridge (near Lemon-hill) and Kingsess Gardens, along the course of the Schuylkill, and not far from its margins.  In great profusion between Market street bridge and the upper-ferry, along the declivity of the high bank.”  For a geographic note here, under Collinsonia, Barton notes: “Also in the woods between Kingsess Gardens (Bartram’s) and Gray’s Ferry”, and so, presumably, “Kingsess Gardens” refers to Bartram’s Garden.

The Woodlands was, in general, extraordinarily well regarded botanically in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as we can see from Frederick Pursh’s description of it, in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis (1814), which immediately follows his description of Bartram’s:

“Not far from the latter place are also the extensive gardens of William Hamilton, Esq., called the Woodlands, which I found not only rich in plants from all parts of the world, but particularly so in rare and new American species. Philadelphia being a central situation, and extremely well calculated for the cultivation of plants from all the other parts of North America, I found this collection particularly valuable for furnishing me with a general knowledge of the plants of that country, preparatory to more extensive travels into the interior, for the discovery of new and unknown subjects. Mr. John Lyon, (of whom I shall have an opportunity to speak hereafter,) who had the management of these gardens, was then about to give them up : having the offer of being appointed his successor, I embraced it, and accordingly in 1802 I entered upon the situation. During my stay in this place, which was until 1805, I received and collected plants from all parts of North America ; and when Michaux’s “Flora Boreali-Americana” appeared, which was during that time, I was not only in possession of most of his plants, but had then a considerable number not described by him.”

The landscape was a bit different, in Hamilton’s time, more pastoral, in parts, as we see from a letter he wrote to his gardener, sent on the 12th of June 1790: “After the immense pains I took in removing the exotics to the north front of the House by way of experiment, & the Hurry of coming away preventing my arranging them, you will naturally suppose me anxious to know the success as to ye plants and the effect as to appearance in ye approach & also their security from cattle.” (from “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary (concluded)”; The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1905), pp. 257-267) [according to John Thomson Faris (Old gardens in and about Philadelphia and those who made them; 1932), Benjamin H. Smith, the author/compiler of the above cited work, was “the grandson of the secretary who bore the same name.” (that is, he was the grandson of Hamilton’s ‘Private Secretary’ of the paper’s title); he also collected hawthorns at Bartram’s Garden]

There’s also a historic record of insect-plant interactions at the Woodlands (an interesting counterpoint, perhaps, to the mammal-plant interactions just mentioned); from the Asa Gray Bulletin, vol VI  (1899), John Harshberger notes: “On June 29, 1894, while walking in Woodland Cemetery, Philadelphia, where Scutellaria pilosa grows abundantly, I saw an humble bee at work perforating the flowers of this pretty skull-cap.” There is even a record of a Turbellid, a planarian like worm, called Phagocota gracilis, as we see in Roman Kenk’s Freshwater Triclads (Turbellaria) of North America IV: the polypharyngeal species of Phagocota (Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology, Number 80, 1970), where he cites a locality for this species as “Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia (*Hyman 1937a: 399)” [the “Hyman” refers to Libby Hyman and the “1937” refers to her 1937 paper in the Transactions of the American Microscopical Society [56:298-310] ).  This species was named by Joseph Leidy, in 1847, ‘who indicated its geographic distribution as “springs in Eastern Pennsylvania” ‘

And minerals, too – in volume one of the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, published in December of 1818, Isaac Lea writes “An Account of the Minerals at present known to exist in the vicinity of Philadelphia”, and includes “Mica.  Glimmer.”:

“This occurs exceedingly abundant in the primitive formation of our neighbourhood. We find it in hexaedral prisms and tabulated, on the Schuylkill, near Germantown, and on the Wilmington road near the Woodlands, where I have found hexaedral crystals of black mica, circumscribed by those of a light brown, forming curious specimens.”

There is, additionally, a history of slime molds here, as is noted in John Harshberger’s 1901 paper in the Botanical Gazette (Vol 31), “Observations upon the Feeding Plasmodia of Fuligo septica” (Harshberger was a botany professor at Penn):

“While searching for Mycetozoa [=slime molds] in the wooded valley incorporated as part of Woodlands cemetery, West Philadelphia, a luxuriant growth of Pleurotus sapidus was found upon some partially decayed logs, which had been piled up in a loose manner preparatory to burning. In removing several large pieces of this fungus, small patches of yellow plasmodium were found upon the lamellar surface of the fully expanded pilei.  These protoplasmic masses had moved out from the rotten log where they were seen in the crevices, and had invaded the gill surface of Pleurotus sapidus.”

As we move forward in the 20th century, there’s also aerial photos that include the Woodlands, as can be seen here, from 1936, and here from 1939, and another from 1936, and yet another from 1936.  And if you look in the back in this one:

West Phila 1939_Library Company Digital Arachives

West Philadelphia, 1939 – Aero Service Corporation. Image from the Library Company of Philadelphia digital collections; the Woodlands can be seen in the upper left of the photograph

you can see how the Woodlands, by the 1930s, was a swath of green in a heavily urbanized environment. The Woodlands has been maintained and managed since Hamilton’s time, as we see from this quote, in a letter he wrote on the 12th of June 1790: “Common sense would point out the necessity of my having constant information respecting the grass grounds at Bush Hill [another Hamilton property in Philadelphia] and at the Woodlands which must be now nearly in a state for mowing. . . It would have been an agreeable circumstance to me to have heard the large sumachs & lombardy poplars as well as the magnolias have not been neglected.” (from “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary (concluded)”; The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1905), pp. 257-267) And so then, as today, the grounds were mown, trees were tended – though now there is less acreage, it is still thoughtfully taken care of today.

On the 30th of May 1955, Edgar T. Wherry collected Festuca elatior from a “Sandy mud-flat at west end of campus, U.P., [=University of Pennsylvania] / Woodland Ave. near 38th St.” (that collection is now in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).

Following a long tradition that dates from Benjamin Smith Barton in the early 19th century and goes on to John Harshberger in the early 20th century, and that I continue today in the early part of the 21st, of taking Penn classes to the Woodlands, I took my City Planning class to the Woodlands on the 21st of March 2014 – and we saw a Woodcock (Scolopax minor), right in front of the house and whinnying as it flew away. [For an earlier and nearby record of a Woodcock, see Samuel Scoville’s “The Wildness of Philadelphia“, written in 1925, wherein he writes thusly about what have elsewhere been called the spruce street swamps: “In that same enchanted spot, where one could step from a crowded city street and be safe among the sweet wild folk in another world, I roused my first woodcock, who had dropped there one March day to rest.”]

On the 10th of February, 2015, we did a survey of the Woodlands, primarily focused on winter fruit and winter birds.  We noted that the Taxus baccata behind the house had no arils, and that the Chinese holly right nearby it had no fruit on it (Jessica Baumert mentioned that American Robins had eaten the fruit from that tree not long before the day we were there). There were sapsucker holes in the Pinus nigra near the house and in the Ilex opaca near the carriage house, and in a Chamaecyparis, too.  In a row of hollies just beyond the fence on the western side (in the area currently used for recreation), there were abundant fruits on the trees, and we saw a Mockingbird, an American Robin, and a gull flying overhead.  We shortly thereafter heard a nuthatch call.  There were hornets nests in the yew near the western fence and in a hackberry closer to Woodland Avenue and another in a black cherry.  In a set of four yew (Taxus baccata) trees – numbers 106, 107, 108 and 109 – we saw three Golden-crowned Kinglets actively feeding at the outer edge of the canopy crown; we watched for over 15 minutes (they were at and just slightly above eye level), and at times the birds flew in our direction, and we easily approached within 1.5 meter of them, and they continued to eat and flit.   We heard male and female cardinals chirping to each other across the drive just west of the entrance, and further east, across another path, we heard another pair doing the same (M in Chamaecyparis, F in Cryptomeria).  Pieris japonica was in fruit.  Three chickadees were actively feeding in an ash tree near the scrubby area near the VA hospital.  Nearby to that, in that aforementioned scrubby area, was a nest that looked like that of a hawk’s (it was similar to a squirrel’s, but it was made of sticks instead of leaves).  A redbud had fruit on it, as did a Chinese holly near the carriage house.  At the back fence a Hedera helix vine had fruit on it.  There was a robin’s nest in a hackberry near the carriage house, and as we left, at about 2PM, a Carolina wren was calling and singing in the meadow, perched up high as we watched.

There’s also a long history of birding at the Woodlands, as we see from George Nitzsche’s 1917 article in the Penn Gazette (“Bring Song Birds Back to Campus!”), where he notes a list of 72 birds compiled in 1906 by Cornelius Weygandt (Professor of English at Penn) and his compatriots, and he notes that there were additional birds found at the Woodlands (Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, Indigo Bunting, Magnolia Warbler, and House Wren).  [to look at modern bird lists for the Woodlands, see here] And he describes Hamilton Walk as “shaded with tall poplars, weeping willows, maples, oaks and other American shade trees planted as memorials to eminent Pennsylvanians…”

Nitzsche notes the changing environment, from bucolic, to the one we see in the photo above, and mentions the loss of bird species on the Penn campus, and encapsulates that sentiment in a line “…even the robins now seem to consider our campus an unfit place to rear their young.” He also notes:

“The peaceful atmosphere of Woodlands Cemetery and the primitive nature of the ravine which separates Woodlands from our Botanic Gardens should bring many attractive songsters [=birds] to the University grounds.”

For directions and more information on the Woodlands, visit: www.woodlandsphila.org

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:


To read about some more landscape history and natural history of cemeteries  – see here:

Wissinoming (including Mt. Carmel Cemetery)

The Trees of Monument Cemetery

Oakland Cemetery

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

William Hamilton, Lombardy poplars, and the landscape of cemeteries

From Erica Maust, of the Woodlands Historic Mansion, Cemetery, and Landscape:

“In 1784, William Hamilton introduced the Lombardy poplar to North America on his Philadelphia estate, The Woodlands. In 1788, a visitor to The Woodlands wrote that Hamilton’s walks were “planted on each side with the most beautiful & curious flowers & shrubs. They are in some parts enclosed with the Lombardy poplar except here & there openings are left to give you a view of some fine trees or beautiful prospect beyond…”

Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut was the first private, non-profit cemetery in the world. Organized in 1796 as “the New Burying Ground in New Haven,” it was one of the earliest cemeteries to have a planned layout with privately owned family lots, named streets and avenues, and arrangements of ornamental plantings. The original 1796 planting scheme of the cemetery featured regular rows of–you guessed it!–Lombardy poplars (the very same tree Hamilton introduced to North America 12 years earlier), along with a poplar grove and meadow at the rear of the cemetery.

44 years later, in 1840, Hamilton’s very own landscaped Woodlands became a planned, rural cemetery, preserving his landscape and horticultural pursuits.”

For more, see here:


And for more about William Hamilton and the Lombardy poplar:



Just to the north of where the Frankford El ends, there is a set of cemeteries, and a park that nearly entirely circles one of them.  Those cemeteries, Cedar Hill, North Cedar Hill, and Mt. Carmel, have been there since this was a rural area just outside of Frankford’s urban core.  And the park, Wissinoming Park, while not quite as old as those cemeteries, has history that does reach a bit further back.

The site of Wissinoming Park was originally the estate of Robert Cornelius, a chemist and an early photographer who began his work in the latest part of the 1830s and took one of the earliest photographs, ever, of a living human.  Mr. Cornelius was a very wealthy man, and in the 1850s he wanted an estate in one of the finest parts of Philadelphia, and he situated it just to the north of Frankford, to enjoy the space and the rural setting he found there.  And it remains open to this day – a swath of green and trees that has been a neighborhood treasure for well over a century.

In an undated piece by Thomas Creighton, from the archives of the Historical Society of Frankford (and thanks to Susan Couvreur for finding this and bringing it to my attention), we find the following:

“One of the most pleasing and attractive of the new parks of Philadelphia is Cornelius Park, situated a short distance above Frankford, and on the western outskirts of Wissinoming it will in due course of time be greatly appreciated.  There are fine forest trees, open glades, and a lake that always adds to the beauty of the landscape”

In this article, they mention that the park had just opened, and that “There some 34 members of the society gathered on Saturday afternoon, October 14…” and:

“Mr. Robert T. Corson, Esq., read a very complete history of the ground comprising the estate, from the time that it was a part of the glebe lands of Oxford church to the present time, of its purchase by the city for a public park.”

This suggests that this article was published (by the Historical Society of Frankford) in 1911 (the 14th of October fell on a Saturday in 1911; also you’ll note that the park is not on the 1910 map here, but it is on the 1929 map there), or perhaps 1912 (since there might have been a delay in publication to the following year after the visit mentioned above).

The paper goes on to say:

“In May 5, 1850, Lawndale, the estate of Edward Lukens and wife, was purchased by Mr. Cornelius for $18,500.  Mr. Cornelius was a great lover of trees and it is stated that he planted about 4000 trees on the place.  There are some very old walnut trees still standing, one large one that stood before the mansion is dead and will soon have to be taken down.  The mansion was torn down recently owing to its neglected condition.”

This mention of walnuts is interesting to me because there are a few black walnuts in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, the cemetery at the northeast corner of Cheltenham and Frankford Avenues, whose land used to be a part of the Cornelius Estate.  In the late 19th century, a portion of the estate was cut off to become Mt. Carmel cemetery, and as an interesting aside, the owner of the first matzah factory in Philadelphia, Werner David Amram, is buried there.  He also was my great great grandfather.

[Note: to read more about a couple other nearby cemeteries, see here]

But back to the trees…

I’d assumed that those black walnut trees at Mt. Carmel had simply seeded in on their own and that no one had removed them; that is, that they’d just weeded their way into the landscape, since it seemed a bit odd to me to plant black walnuts in a cemetery, given that these plants shed nuts prolifically, nuts that are time consuming to pick up from the ground and discard.

However, on a visit to the Frankford Arsenal this past July (which was kindly organized by Cynthy and John Buffington, by the way), I saw that there is an enormous black walnut near the reflecting pool in the southwest corner there, and there are also two smaller ones (black walnut trees, that is) arranged at the far corner of the pool from it.  I was surprised to see them there (for a similar reason that I was surprised to see the ones at Mt. Carmel), and based on the placement of the larger tree (relative to the pool, and also relative to those other two walnuts also near the pool), I’m quite sure it was planted there, and that those two smaller ones are, too.  Since those black walnuts at the Arsenal are pretty clearly planted, and since it is noted that walnuts (which may well have been black walnuts) were noted to have been planted on the Cornelius estate, I have had to reappraise my thoughts on black walnuts being planted (and not seeding in on their own), in landscapes in Frankford (and most likely elsewhere), such as Mt. Carmel Cemetery.

But back to the park…

In the late 19th century, the estate had an open, park like aspect to it, much as it does today – this I saw in photographs from the archives of the Historical Society of Frankford, access to which was kindly granted to me by Susan Couvreur and Diane Sadler.

And if we look at old maps, we see that there were two streams running through the estate – one ran in a roughly southwesterly direction, the other went roughly southeast.  The two joined in the southern part of the estate, and then crossed what is now Cheltenham Ave (but at the time was Dark Run Rd).  The southwest running creek has since been covered over, but there is now a long low area running above where that creek once ran – I talked to some people at the park and they call it “the creek”.  It dries out when the rain doesn’t come, so it isn’t totally a creek, but when the rain comes, the creek fills up, and so it does have a flow at times, and so colloquially calling it a creek makes sense to me.

The southeasterly running stream started just across Frankford Ave, in the eastern part of the property owned by North Cedar Hill Cemetery, but in an area that is, so far as I’m aware, unburied with bodies.  It’s just a bit southwest of what might be the oldest community garden in Philadelphia, which is in turn just a bit southwest of Benner St, on the north side of Frankford Ave.

I’ve talked to people, such as Robert Penn, who’ve lived in the area in decades past, and they’ve told me that there used to be a spring there, where that creek began, just north of Frankford Ave, just west of Comly, where people would go to get drinking water. But it was closed down in the 1950s or so, due to concerns about its cleanliness.

There were many springs in the parks of Philadelphia, in former times, such as the one described in the “Conchologists’ Exchange“, where John Ford (Philadelphia, PA) describes a locality in West Fairmount Park, in 1887:

“On the eastern embankment of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad about 200 yards below Belmont Landing, the remains of an old spring house may he seen with the water still bubbling up among its ruins, across which rests the trunk of a fast decaying tulip poplar.”

The stream that came from that spring in Wissinoming was dammed up, in Cornelius’s time and on Cornelius’s property, to make a large pond – the area where that impoundment was is now covered by concrete and is part and parcel of the park that is there today, and kids now play street hockey there, above where a pond once was.  There is a drainage that still runs underground there, with an entranceway to it that you can see at the southwest part of the cemented play area, and there is a little bridge that stands to mark where a stream once was.

It was not unpopular, in the late 19th and early 20th century, to install water features in parks, as we see from the 1901 “Twenty-Ninth Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia” [or “the Philadelphia Zoo”, as it is more commonly called today]:

“Through the interest of a generous patron of the Gardens, means were provided for converting the upper portion of the stream in rear of the deer park, into a pond for otter, which has proved to be one of the most attractive features of the collection. At the lower end of the same stream, adjoining the beaver, another inclosure has been made for wood ducks.”

But these water features don’t last forever – things come and things go, like water under a bridge.

There was also, I’ve been told, a farm near there, as late as the 1950s, just north of North Cedar Hill Cemetery, and that it was owned by the same Brous family for whom Brous Ave is named.  But I haven’t found out more about that, yet.

Those creeks that ran through Wissinoming Park were tributaries of Little Tacony Creek – Wissinoming Creek ran a bit north and east of the park, and flowed directly into the Delaware.  That waterway, Wissinoming Creek, like so many others in Philadelphia, has long since been covered over and hasn’t seen the light of day in decades, but its legacy still remains, both in the name of the park nearby (Wissinoming Park, that is), and also in the open park like spaces along Devereaux St., and Hegerman St., and Vandike St – streets that were set above where the creek once ran.

In 1999, there were houses on those lots – but they’d been built, in the 1920s, on top of the ash and cinder filled stream bed of the Wissinoming Creek, and that light debris didn’t support the houses well enough, and by the end of the 20th century they were declared by the city to be “in imminent danger of collapse.” – and so they are now open spaces, grassy and green, and dotted a bit with trees, telling of what runs beneath them.

Back in the 1920s, when this area was being heavily developed, it had a very different aspect to what it has now, as you might expect, but in ways that might be surprising – for example, there was open wetland, and pretty good quality wetland, too, along what is now Cheltenham Ave, in the area near Wissinoming Park.

We know this because, at the Academy of Natural Sciences, in their collection of dried and pressed plants (called an “herbarium“), there is a collection of Sparganium americanum, collected by R. R. Dreisbach on the 12th of July in 1922.  He noted the habitat location as “Marshes / Dark Run Rd.  Frankford, Phila Co.”

Sparganium americanum, or American bur reed as it is more commonly known if it is known at all, is an obligate wetland plant; that is, it needs saturated soils to live – and so we know that there were open wetlands at the site where it was collected.  Also, while this bur reed isn’t the most sensitive of plants, it does need somewhat clean water and this indicates that the water was not overly polluted at the time it was collected. [for example, in  Small et al’s 1994 paper in Restoration Ecology, “A Macrophyte-Based Rapid Biosurvey of Stream Water Quality: Restoration at the Watershed Scale”, they report Sparganium americanum from nearly 27% of the high quality streams they surveyed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, yet not at all from their low quality stream sites]

We have to use old maps to suss out the location indicated by Dreisbach for his bur reed collection, to see where Dark Run Rd. was, since it it no longer there – and to do that we can turn to the maps at Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network; look at the 1910 map therein and you will see that Dark Run Rd was what is now the portion of Cheltenham Ave running to the south of Wissinoming Park and its nearby graveyards.  (there is also a Hexamer Survey map of Dark Runs Mill, Briggs and Bros., from 1874, that shows quite clearly that there was industry here, but also, as is noted at the outer edges of the map, there was also “meadows” and “farmland” and “woodlands” directly adjacent to those facilities – as is noted on the plan: “Situated on Dark Run Creek, about 1/2 mile above Frankford, 23d Ward, Philadelphia” and “Buildings erected 1869 and 1871…”; Dark Run Creek was also called Tackawanna Creek, and also Little Tacony Creek according to “Old Towns and Districts of Philadelphia“, by William Bucke Campell, published in 1942)

But it wasn’t just trees and wetland plants growing up around there.  There were also flowers being cultivated in the area near Wissinoming Park.  In the middle part of the 20th century, there was a nursery at Frankford and Devereaux.  It’s indicated on a 1929 map (as “F. H. Worsinger. Jr. Green House), and also on 1942 and 1962 maps (those maps are available via the Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network), and was right across the street from the Frankford Yellowjackets stadium (the Frankford Yellowjackets were a professional football team based out of Frankford) – the stadium at Frankford and Devereax burned down in 1931.

This nursery (Worsinger, that is) most likely supplied materials for the nearby cemeteries, and perhaps that’s why I’ve been unable to turn up much about it, since it would’ve been a highly localized business, and might not have advertised much, nor published catalogs (I’ve looked in the collections at the McLean Library at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and haven’t found anything about F. H. Worsinger, nor any kind of nursery with a name like that)

Mr. Worsinger was, however, a reasonably prominent man – as is noted in volume 15 of the Journal of Economic Entomology (published in 1922), he was “locally in charge of the Japanese beetle work, Bureau of Plant Industry, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.”

There was another nursery nearby, that could’ve been supplying the cemetery with its bouquets and greenery.  William B. Koehler was a florist on Bridge St., between Darrah and Duffield, with numerous greenhouses (as can be seen in the 1929 map here).  These would likely have supplied the flowery needs of Frankford’s living citizens, and quite likely would have been beautifying the homes of those who were belowground, too.

But there’s more… in addition to the wetland plants and the cultivated trees and the flowers for sale, there were dry, weedily growing open areas there, too, as is indicated by a collection (also at the Academy of Natural Science’s herbarium), from the 13th of October of 1927, by Walter Benner, of the plant Amaranthus spinosus.  Benner made this collection at Frankford Ave and Devereaux St. (that is, where the Yellowjackets stadium stood), and noted the habitat as “Waste ground” (that is, an area like a vacant lot, or perhaps an actual vacant lot – or perhaps just a weedy parking area, but regardless, an open, untended area).  And also at the Academy, there is a collection of wild strawberry (Fragaria virginica), from “burned-over edge of thickets along Wissinoming Creek / Tacony”, that was made by J. W. Adams and Thomas Taylor on the 2nd of May 1926.   And in Keller and Brown’s 1905 Flora of Philadelphia, they note “Aegopodium podagraria … Waste Places.” with a locality of “Dark Run and Frankford”.  And so, while there were plants that were planted and landscapes that were cultivated, there were also areas that just grew up there on their own.

This area had a history of horticulture well prior to the 20th century, I should say.  The Caleb Cope nursery, where Thomas Meehan worked, was a bit farther towards the northeast, at Cottman and Frankford – it was there in the 19th century, predating the cemeteries and parks down the way in Frankford, and Thomas Meehan, the eminent nurseryman of Germantown, worked there early in his career, in the late 1840s.

There was still an agricultural aspect to that area, even into the 20th century, as the following collection label (from, yet again, the Academy of Natural Science’s herbarium) indicates:

Amaranthus spinosus
“weed in open ground about barn
along Cottman St. S.W. of Holmesburg”
Bayard Long
26 Oct 1916

And there also would have been scrubby areas here, in the 1930s, as is indicated by the record of a Brown Thrasher nest (“Wissinoming, 4 highly incubated eggs”), noted by Richard Miller in his paper, “the Breeding Birds of Philadelphia”, in volume 51, number 7 of the Oologist (“for the student of birds, their nests, and eggs”), published in 1933.  And there certainly were wide open areas, as is indicated by the aerial photo here, from 1927: http://new.planphilly.com/eyesonthestreet/2013/11/22/from-above-roosevelt-boulevard-oxford-circle-and-beyond-in-1927

Wissinoming Park remains to this day a site of botanical interest – there is a pair of southern red oaks (Quercus falcata – these trees were pointed out to me by Tony Gordon, by the way) that are possibly the largest in the city, and there are other enormous oaks, a very large English (or German, depending on whom you ask – but either way it’s Quercus robur) oak in the northeast part of the park, and nearby to that is a very large swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor).  There are also two very good sized ginkgos, and a nice osage orange (Maclura pomifera), too.  And along the “creek” at the Charles St. side of the park, there is a row of catalpas – based on the size of their seed pods (they’re over a centimeter wide), they’re most likely Catalpa speciosa, the northern catalpa – there’s a number of them lined up there, like a screen, awning off the stream and its riparian boundary from the rest of the park [NB: there are some Catalpa bignonioides, the southern catalpa, in the park as well; along the path leading to the “creek” there are two catalpas on either side, the one on the south side is C. speciosa and the one of the north side is C. bignonioides; these are differentiable based on bark characteristics (bignonioides is rough, speciosa is ridged), seed pod width (bignonioides generally less than 1cm across, speciosa generally wider than 1 cm across, and phenology – speciosa flowers before bignonioides; on the 9th of June 2014, the speciosa is already dropping its flowers while the bignonioides buds are barely even expanded; in 2015 I looked pretty closely at the flowers of both these species, and they look pretty much the same].  There are also some pignut trees (Carya glabra) in the park – these are notable if only because they aren’t commonly seen in parks (they are difficult to transplant, and so need to be grown from seed, thereby making it difficult to grow them in a park planting), and even moreso because the squirrels clearly like them so much – when we were there, at Wissinoming Park, on the 25th of June, the ground below them was littered with hickory husks, having been industriously nibbled by these little gray rodents.

For a quick note on another Carya, C. illinoinensis, commonly known as the pecan, from the “Short Sketch of Philadelphia Trees”, from John Harshberger’s 1899 The Botanists of Philadelphia and their Work:

“Nuttall’s Pecan Tree. An old pecan tree, one of the most famous in the city, stood, until recently, on the grounds of the M. E. Church, Germantown and High Streets. The seed was carried by Nuttall, the botanist, from Arkansas.”

(that church is now the First United Methodist Church of Germantown)

And as for those catalpas mentioned above, they are a good size, but not enormous – though these trees do have the potential to grow to great size around here, as an article in the Gardener’s Monthly (volume 20, from 1878) attests, referencing a northern catalpa growing across town, in Fairmount Park:

A Large Catalpa. – Mr. Horace J. Smith writes: “I measured a Catalpa tree in Fairmount Park, on the river drive, west side, this morning, and found it to be thirteen feet in circumference, at an average of one foot from the ground (it is on a hillside), showing a trunk four feet diameter. Would a section or slab be of interest?”

[What will those Western friends think who believe Southern Indiana produces the only hardy Catalpa. Though Mr. Smith does not say so, we can assure them that this Pennsylvania tree is not growing in the mammoth conservatory in Fairmount Park, but is actually in the open air, and has probably been there through a hundred Winters. How many annual rings has it, Mr. Smith? But we hope there will be no attempt to take a slab from it. Better let the old Catalpa stand.]

As an aside, in Mark Catesby’s “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands” (of fieldwork from 1722-1726), he writes of the Catalpa: “This Tree was unknown to the inhabited Parts of Carolina till I brought the Seeds from the remoter Parts of the Country.

And as for the osage orange – a Landreth‘s seed catalog from 1832 covers it well:

“A splendid forest tree: the leaves of a beautiful shining green, and the fruit a most singular appearance; discovered by Lewis and Clarke, when on their western tour.

Native soil: Arkansas  $1.00/pc”

(the above was transcribed from a copy at the McLean library)

Landreth’s was a prominent seed company, that continued on to recent times.

Also, there’s some receipts from Landreth’s at the Pennsylvania Hospital archives, including for: “Poppler” trees (didn’t note the date of this one), and “2 multaflora Rose Trees” (those were from an 1820 receipt).  They also bought some oak leaf hydrangea from Landreth’s in 1824.

And, in a letter from Solomon Conrad to Lewis David von Schweinitz (21 Feb 1823; it’s in the ANSP archives): “Agreeably to thy request I called on Landreth to enquire if he would send specimens of plants when ordered by thee – and he informed me that he would be willing to do so, with such specimens as he had”

And Frederick Pursh supplies a bit more information on the Osage Orange, in his Flora Americae Septentrionalis (1814):

“About the village of the Osage Indians a few trees have been planted, from which one has been introduced into one of the gardens at St. Louis on the Mississippi. Perfect seeds from the last-mentioned tree were given by Mr. Lewis to Mr.  M’Mahon, nursery and seedsman at Philadelphia, who raised several fine plants from them, and in whose possession they were when I left America.”

And a brief note on Quercus falcata – this tree is also called the Spanish oak, and a tree by that name was mentioned by William Penn as being here in the 1680sQ. falcata is also listed in William P. C. Barton’s 1818 flora of Philadelphia (“The finest timber tree among the oaks.  In all our woods.”), but there is another tree that Barton calls “Spanish oak” (this is the common name he gives to Q. palustris), and he gives the common name of “red oak” to Q. falcata; Q. rubra, which we would call “red oak” today, he calls “scarlet oak”.  To further complicate and confuse things, in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 flora of Philadelphia, they list “Spanish oak” as being in Philadelphia (“Byberry … Grays Ferry … 52d Street Woods … Lancaster Pike”), but they give it the latin name of “Q. digitata” (it is also listed under that name, and as being in Philadelphia, in Thomas C., Porter’s 1903 Flora of Pennsylvania); in the copy of Barton’s 1818 flora that is in the botany department of the Academy of Natural Sciences, this name (digitata, that is) is written in the margin next to the section for Q. falcata.  Q. falcata is also in Edgar Wherry’s “A check-list of the flora of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania” (published in Bartoniathe Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, vol. 38), and this came out in 1969.

Point being – it is complicated tracing back a plant through the literature, but it can be done, and in this instance, we see that Quercus falcata has been here for quite some time, and was reasonably common, even though it is not a tree I commonly see in Philadelphia now.

Wissinoming Park and the area around it has changed drastically over the past couple hundred years – once comprised of open areas with wetlands, of a major estate with streams running through it, of farms and creeks and forests, too, much of this land has proceeded to be covered over and filled in by housing for the living and dead alike.

But among it all, the expansive green that was here when Robert Cornelius planted thousands of trees for his estate in the mid-19th century still breathes open.  Kids play, people sit and talk; barbequing on warm nights, or just walking through when it’s too cold to sit – this vast open oasis covers history, grows from history, and still it is an active part of the community around it, integrating what was here before with what is here now.

Walking among trees that were planted under the direction of the man who took the first photograph of a living human, looking at the section of his estate that was cut off to become a cemetery, gazing over the rink that was once a pond, we can see the changes that have arrived, and even though we don’t need to see or know any of this in order to be a part of the landscape that is there today, seeing the past lends a depth to the present that allows us to see connections that would otherwise lie unseen.

To read about some other parks in Philadelphia, see here:

Hunting Park

West Fairmount Park (Michaux Grove, specifically)

Cresheim Creek

The Wissahickon (its hemlocks, specifically)

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:


Oakland Cemetery

In between Friends Hospital and Greenwood Cemetery, just a bit off Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia, is Oakland Cemetery.  Friends Hospital, founded in 1813, is the oldest private psychiatric hospital in the US, and it also has a beautiful landscape – with its azaleas along the way down to Tacony Creek behind it, with its enormous American elm tucked away into a corner behind one of its buildings, and with the many other trees and flowers dotting and shading it throughout, it’s a surprising little refuge of calm and color in the city, as traffic along the Boulevard rushes by, just beyond the gates and fence of the hospital’s grounds.  If you go back behind the buildings and down that road that is lined with those azaleas that bloom in the spring, and you take a left turn at Tacony Creek, you’ll eventually get to Fishers Lane.  And if you then take a left there, you’ll get to Ramona Ave, and then, a bit more along, as you walk along Ramona, you’ll see Greenwood Cemetery on your right.

Greenwood Cemetery was, in centuries ago, the property of Benjamin Rush, physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and advocate of sugar maples and the maple syrup that can be derived therefrom.  Why was Dr. Rush an advocate of maple syrup?  This was in large part because he was an ardent abolitionist, and didn’t want Americans to be reliant upon sugar from West Indies’ sugar cane, which was reliant, in turn, on slave labor for its production.  There are, currently, some extraordinarily large sugar maples there, at Greenwood Cemetery, that stand as markers to Rush’s advocacy for their products, and for his advocacy for that most basic of human rights, the right to live freely.

In the post-Rush era, this site became a cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery, chartered in 1869, and as the years wore on, maintenance became difficult to keep up, and this place became quite overgrown, and up until recently was somewhat forested, but it has recently been restored and renovated, and is an idyllic spot to walk now.  And in addition to the sugar maples that I just mentioned, there is also an enormous American sycamore there, that based on its size looks to have been planted in the mid-19th century.  American sycamores don’t do very well in sooty air of cities, and so this tree suggests, to me at least, a 19th century habitat that was open and well stocked with clear air.

And in between these two landmarks, in between Friends Hospital and Greenwood Cemetery, is another open area – open amid the swaths of buildings and roads that pack in, through, and around Philadelphia, it is open and green with trees and shrubs and grass, an open space in the city – Oakland Cemetery.

According to the book Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace (by the Federal Writers’ Project, in 1937) Oakland Cemetery opened in 1881 (they also mention that it’s 43 acres), however, as I’ve been told by Jackie Childs, the official start date for the cemetery is 1891.   And Jackie is one to know such things – she is the fourth generation in her family to take care of Oakland Cemetery, and is wonderfully knowledgeable as to what is there, and also as to what was there before.

The cemetery was briefly known as Mt. Auburn (as is indicated on the 1895 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), but shortly thereafter came to its current name of Oakland (as is indicated on the 1910 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), and that is what we know it as now.

In 1895, electric lights were put in, as was recorded in the Journal of the Select Council of the City of Philadelphia, vol. 2 (from October 4, 1894 to March 28, 1895)


Locating electric lights for the year 1895.

Section 1. The Select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia do ordain, That the Director of the Department of Public Safety be, and is hereby, authorized and directed to erect electric lights on the following streets and avenues, viz. …”

Following that ellipsis, among the hundreds upon hundreds of streets noted as soon to be having electric lights, we find “south side Asylum pike opposite Oakland Cemetery” listed among them.

If you go there now, you won’t see those lights, but you will see trees that were in the cemetery at that time – at the entrance to Oakland at Adams and Ramona, for example, there is an enormous black oak (Quercus velutina) that, based on its size, I estimate to predate the cemetery.  Also, it has wide and broad spreading lower limbs – this indicates that it has been open grown since its youth, thereby providing evidence that this property was not forested, even prior to its conversion to a cemetery (it would have been a farm – and so we can put together a little story that this now majestic black oak would have, in the mid-19th century, been a scrawny little sapling that was kept alive with, quite likely, the intention of shading cows in a pasture, or farmers on break from working the fields, or the owners as they watched the workers working, perhaps).

Why do those wide and spreading limbs of the black oak indicate this history?  Well, when trees grow in the forest, with other trees nearby, those other trees shade out the lower limbs – and then those lower limbs become weak, and then they fall off, and so we get trees in the forest that are generally tall and straight, growing upwards, with relatively few lower limbs spreading out horizontally (and perhaps with a bit of the oblique).  However, absent those neighboring trees, being “open grown” that is, and absent someone coming along and cutting off a tree’s lower limbs, a tree will branch out broadly, low and spreading, and as the years go by those lower branches will get thicker and larger, expanding in girth as they expand in length, presenting an architecture that looks like it was made to be climbed on or climbed up.  The black oak at the entrance to Oakland Cemetery has just that aspect, and so we can say quite confidently that it didn’t grow up in the forest, but in a field.

If you go a bit farther in to the cemetery, up to the main house there, on your left is an old umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) – its main trunk has died back, but the suckers that have come up off the roots flower quite well, as the fruits that were there in September 2012 attest.  The umbrella magnolia isn’t native to southeastern Pennsylvania, though it is native to west of here, as Ann Rhoads very persuasively argued in Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, however it has grown here for quite some time and been naturalized for about a hundred years or so, and it is a reasonably common tree to see planted, or coming up in the woods (I see it pretty often up in the Wissahickon).  This one at Oakland, looking at the base that has died back and from which these suckers has arisen, is one of the largest that I’m aware of around here, and I wonder if it represents one of the earlier plantings of this tree around here.  I should say also that this tree has been growing in Philadelphia for over two hundred years – Magnolia tripetala is listed in the Landreth’s nursery catalog of 1811 [which can be found in the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society], with a common name of “umbrella tree”, and it’s listed in John Bartram’s “Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbacious Plants, most of which are now growing, and produce ripe Seed in John Bartram’s Garden, near Philadelphia. The Seed and Growing Plants of Which are disposed of on the most reasonable Terms.” ([Phila.]: [1783]), as is noted in Joel Fry’s article “An international catalogue of North American trees and shrubs; the Bartram broadside, 1783”, in the Journal of Garden History (vol. 16, no. 1, 1996).

A bit farther down and along, just past the house, you start to see large white ash (Fraxinus americana) trees, growing wide and spreading.  These trees, based on their size, I would estimate to have been planted around the time of the opening of the cemetery in the late 19th century – their placement along its paths also attests to their planting having postdated its establishment.  They also look to have been pollarded.  Pollarding is a process whereby the top of a tree is cut off, thereby allowing side shoots to grow up and out from where that top had been removed – this establishes a broadly arching habit, much like what one might see in an American elm, with branches stretching up and over, and if pollarded trees have been planted along side either side of a road or path, those upward sweeping limbs can meet in the middle, forming a vaulting architecture under which we may walk and cars may drive.  Of course, trees can also lose their tops without the intentional intervention of people, without pollarding that is, and so you have to check that this is part of the landscaping intentions, and isn’t due to wind, or someone accidentally swiping a top or two of a tree as they pass by with a truck or something.  These ash trees at Oakland are pretty much all spraying upwards from points at roughly the same height – this suggests to me that they were managed to look like this (if the breaks were accidental or due to nonhuman interventions, then I’d expect them to be expanding outwards from different heights), suggesting that they were clipped so that they could go on to form graceful ceilings under which mourners could make their ways to gravesites, and also so that Sunday visitors who simply wanted to visit a beautiful park could stroll underneath a sky of green.

Onwards and somewhat southwards, as you go along the path that goes towards Ramona Ave and Fisher Lane, and as you get nearly towards the split point of Ramona and Fisher, you’ll look down on your left and you’ll see a sewer.  I was pretty excited when I saw that for the first time – why was that?  Why was I excited to see this hole in the ground, a hole that pretty much just leads to other holes?  Why on earth (or in earth) would I get excited to see a sewer?

Well, if you look at old maps of this site you’ll find that there were streams that used to run through it – in the 1862 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/, you’ll see a couple of streams running out of the back of what is now Oakland Cemetery, and one of them, the one to the south, was roughly where Fisher’s Lane splits off from Ramona Ave (and also running along Ramona a bit prior to Ramona’s split with Fisher); the other was up towards the Friends Asylum. The former stream (the one running near what is now Ramona and Fisher) is not on the 1855 map (here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/); the latter is.  If we look on the 1843 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), both streams are on map, and on the 1808 Hills map (same place as the others), the southern (the one near Ramona and Fisher) stream is there.

There is, I should say, another sewer uphill from that old one – it is newer, and while it does, I’m quite confident, pour its water and other effluvia ultimately into that old streambed marked in those old maps, because it is newer it is not as likely to mark quite as exactly where the stream ran, like that old one does, but was more likely constructed as simple drainage for the road that it accompanies.

And so, that old sewer, and a pretty humble one at that, unlabelled and unadorned, marks the site of a stream that is no longer there – it gives us a physical landmark with which we can pinpoint where that historic stream was, a stream that was limned on old maps and has since been covered up but still carries water, though now underground.  A stream that ran when Benjamin Rush lived here, advocating for abolition, a stream that ran when Friends Hospital opened, a hospital devoted to humane treatment of those who had been treated quite differently prior to that, a stream that ran when this site, Oakland Cemetery, was farmland, with a little black oak seedling far a ways up the hill, now shading the entrance to this city of the dead, but then kept alive most likely with the intention of shading pasture for farm animals, or farm workers, or farm owners – this stream still runs, but the only evidence we see that remains is that humble opening, telling us, quietly, subtly, discreetly, where the history lies beneath.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:


To read about some more natural history and open areas, including cemeteries, nearby – see here:


Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Monument Cemetery

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

A different zelkova

Throughout Philadelphia, you’ll see the Japanese zelkova planted as a street tree, or planted in yards and parks, all over the place.  If you go over by Norris Square in North Philadelphia, just south of the Square, along Howard Street, there’s a row of enormous zelkovas.  Or if you’re in Chestnut Hill, at the triangle of green bounded by Ardleigh, Winston, and East Willow Grove, you’ll also see some large zelkovas.  And just in general, if you go around the city, looking at trees, you’ll see plenty of Japanese zelkovas – they have dark grayish bark, somewhat rough, with an orangey tone underneath, that you can see as the bark above it peels away.  Their leaves are toothed, and come to a bit of a point at the end – they’re shaped somewhat like the leaf on the Breyer’s ice cream logo.  Their branches spread out somewhat, and their canopy makes a nice rounded shape.  They’re tough trees that can live well in the city, and they also grow in an attractive habit – they look nice and they grow well, and so, they’re planted all over the place.  The Japanese zelkova (Zelkova serrata) is an ubiquitous street tree in Philadelphia.

But there is another zelkova in Philadelphia, the Caucasian zelkova (Zelkova carpinifolia) that is rarely, if ever seen.  In fact, the only one that I’m aware of in Philadelphia, and perhaps the only one in the state, and quite likely the only one in the Delaware Valley, is at the Woodlands Cemetery in west Philadelphia, and it looks like this:

Zelkova carpinifolia, Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
Photo courtesy Jessica Baumert

It truly is magnificent – with its upwards reaching branches (that is, its fastigiate growth habit), it looks like a wild upended broom in the wintertime.  Lush foliage in the spring fills its canopy with green that lasts through to the autumn, and in the winter, when it loses its leaves, the fastigiate habit makes for a wonderful structural element in the landscape.  And its gray silvery bark, without the orangey-red underbark of the Japanese zelkova, gives it a subtly rich texture throughout the year.  The branches also fuse with each other, making for an appearance like a strangler fig in the tropics, with the branching and anastomosing strands tangling into wonderful knots.

This fusion is an interesting characteristic, and not wholly uncommon in plants.  Plants are different from animals, in that they have far fewer moving parts than we do.  For animals, cells move with respect to each other – they move around the body, they shift as organs develop, they die, they grow, they can even travel quite far from where they were initiated, for example in the case of blood cells.  An animal cell did not necessarily grow up next to its nearest neighbor, they are moving around so much, and so they need to have a pretty sophisticated system of cell-cell recognition, to make sure that the cell nestled up against them isn’t a parasite, like a bacterium or fungus, as some of their neighbors may be.  And so, we (animals, that is) have immune systems that are pretty good at differentiating self from non-self.  This is good for reducing parasite load, however, it isn’t so good if you want to make a graft – hence the need for immune suppressing drugs when organ transplant surgery is completed.

Plants, however, grow by stacking one cell atop another as they divide and grow, and these cells are cemented together the one against the other as they do this – they grew up next to their neighbors and they’ll live next to them for the entirety of their lives, and after they die, they’ll be stuck there still.  And so, there has been less evolutionary pressure in plants for a tight recognition of self versus non-self – proximity does that job for them.  This isn’t to say that plants don’t have immune systems – they do.  But they are not as tightly controlled as ours, and this means that individual plants can fuse with each other much more readily than animals can.  And this is something that we (humans, that is) take great opportunity with, everytime someone grafts a tree, or a rose.  There is a downside to this, however, too, because it also means that diseases can flow from one plant to another, if a parasitized individual has fused with a non-parasitized one – this is what happened with the elms of North America, as Dutch elm disease arrived.  The trees’ roots had fused under ground, as they grew the one against the other along streets and avenues of the towns of America, and if one tree got sick, then rapidly all the trees in a row got sick, as the causative agent of this disease, a parasitic fungus, traveled along those fused roots.

And so, as with many things, there is a plus and a minus, advantages and disadvantages, to our respective immune systems, and how they spring from our differing developmental protocols, and how they then in turn affect that development as we grow.

And due to that development that allows for that fusion, the rummaging branches of the Caucasian zelkova have a fairyland apperance – like a mazed tangle of upright hair, knotting together, and then unknotting again, reaching Rapunzel like, but towards the sky.

When I first saw this tree at the Woodlands, the one that is pictured above, I’d thought it was very old, this enormous trunk.  It is very very large, and I’d been told that the Caucasian zelkova, this species, was at the Woodlands in William Hamilton’s time.  (William Hamilton was the Philadelphia gentleman and plant enthusiast who owned and cultivated the Woodlands up until the earliest part of the 19th century – he died in 1813, and there is a rich heritage of horticulture and natural history at the Woodlands that continues to this day)  And so from the first time I saw it I assumed that this trunk was somewhere around 200 years old.

This seemed to be supported by other evidence.  In an article I read, that I was pointed to by Joel Fry, Curator at Bartram’s Garden, this tree is discussed.  In 1876, in The Gardener’s Monthly, Eli K. Price, who was the commissioner of Fairmount Park, writes about this zelkova, and mentions it as having been here in Hamilton’s time.  And he and others had been thoroughly impressed with this arborescent spectacle – Price writes, in that same article, about a visit by Charles Sprague Sargent (a Harvard botanist) to Philadelphia, for the celebration of America’s centennial, at which time Sargent visited the Woodlands and marveled at this tree.  Price writes:

“These trees will be cared for and preserved in the Woodlands. What is more important is, that they should be secured to our country by propagation. If seed should appear next Fall, they will be gathered. In the meantime grafting should be attempted. Mr. Sargent is trying it at Cambridge, on English elms. I invite gardeners to get cuttings and try their success.”

Price does not mention if Sargent was successful with those grafts, nor if the legion of invited gardeners were successful with their cuttings, to propagate this tree, or even if they tried at all.

And so, as I looked at this wonderful tree and wondered why something so spectacular wasn’t growing in yards and parks throughout Philadelphia, like its cousin Zelkova serrata does, I thought I understood – this was, I believed, a very slow growing tree, and perhaps difficult to propagate, and it would take a very long time for it to get to this magnificent shape and structure, and so there were pretty good reasons for it not to have been commonly planted, and this, I thought, was why we don’t see it very often around here.

But I was wrong.  Yes, the Caucasian zelkova was at the Woodlands at Hamilton’s time.  This tree, this kind of zelkova, was brought into Europe from the Middle East in the 1780s by Andre Michaux, who had gone to Persia (what we would now call Iran) and collected it and brought it back to France.  At about this same time, William Hamilton, owner of the Woodlands at that time, was in England, visiting from Philadelphia, collecting plants and sending them back home – those plants would not have included the Caucasian zelkova, since it would have only freshly been introduced into Europe.  We’re not sure exactly how it got to the US, and to Hamilton’s estate.  But it may well have been via Michaux – he certainly was at the Woodlands, and he ran nurseries up in Hackensack (in New Jersey) and down in Charleston (in South Carolina) through which he might have imported this tree, and so while we can’t say for sure, we can make a rough approximation that Andre Michaux may well have been the fellow to have brought this tree to us, when it arrived here in the earliest part of the 19th century, or the latest part of the 18th.

But this large trunk now at the Woodlands, the one pictured above, was not from that and then, at least not directly.  As was pointed out to me by Joel Fry, John Harshberger wrote an article on the Woodlands in 1921, in The Garden Magazine, where he mentions these zelkovas:

“Outside of the remarkable Ginkgos, the rarest and largest trees of “The Woodlands,” are four remaining specimens of Zelkova crenata [note: this is an older name for this tree], native of the Caucasus regions. This species was originally planted in two rows forming an avenue of approach to the house. The single remaining tree of the west row near the stable was alive on June 24th, 1916, but is now dead. It measures 14 ft. 8 in. in circumference. In the eastern row, all of the three trees are now dead. These trees measure respectively 12 ft. 6 in.; 12 ft.; and 11 ft. in circumference. They are about 50 tall. Two young sprout trees have appeared between the second and third, which are already 10 ft. tall and promise to become lusty specimens.”

Though we know when that last one died back, it’s not clear when the others died, though we do know that the four mentioned above were here in 1905, as they are mentioned in Benjamin H. Smith’s 1905 “Some Letters from William Hamilton, of the Woodlands, to His Private Secretary” (The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1905), pp. 70-78):

“Only one specimen of the Ginkgo, now the oldest tree of that species in America, still remains in the vicinity of the old mansion ; near by are four large trees of Zelkova crenata, from the Caucasus, now in their old age, and these, with a few ancient English hawthorns, alone remain to attest the ancient glory of the gardens and grounds at The Woodlands.”

There is a photo of one of those original trees, currently in the Samuel N. Baxter collection at Bartram’s Garden (it was shown to me by Joel Fry), with a photograph from the 16th of April, 1920, of Mr. Baxter (he was the chief arborist of the Fairmount Park system at the time) gazing up at at a large trunked (13′ 4″ in diameter!) fastigiate tree – an original Woodlands Zelkova carpinifolia, “just before tree died”, as a label on the back of the photo tells us.  This provides further supporting evidence that those original Caucasian zelkovas are no longer there.

And so, by 90 years ago, the originals were gone.  This one we see now is a root sucker off them, one of the ones mentioned in Harshberger’s article from 1921, and it’s not more then 90 years old.  And it’s enormous, and so it’s not so slow a grower.  And so that is not why it is not planted commonly around here.

But perhaps it can’t be propagated well, and maybe that’s why we don’t see it.  Well, if we visit the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and look in catalogs from Meehan’s Nursery, a large one in Germantown, here in Philadelphia, we see that they had this tree for sale in the late 19th and early 20th century.  While it’s not in their 1858 catalog, it is in the 1880 catalog, under the name of Zelkova crenata – under a listing for plants that were “1 to 2 ft”, they went for 50 cents a piece, which wasn’t cheap at that time.  They didn’t sell them in bulk either, only by the piece, which suggests that they didn’t have a lot of them, or at least didn’t think they’d sell a lot of them.  The latter theory is borne out in the 1893 and 1895 Meehan’s catalogs, in which Zelkova crenata is noted as being “Rare in cultivation”, and in the 1896-1897 catalog, in which it’s either upgraded or downgraded, I don’t know which, to being “…not common in cultivation”.  Starting in the 1897-1898 catalog, it starts being sold under a different name, Planera richardii, and it was sold under that name for a few more years.  However, by the 1911 trade catalog, it isn’t there, and in the 1911 retail catalog, Planera is only listed in the back, and it is not described, nor are individual species listed – they are only listed in a footnote as being “in stock”.  The plant is not in the later catalogs – not in the 1916, nor 1917, nor 1923-1924.  Its few decades of being sold by Meehan’s Nursery had passed.  But it had been sold.

This tells us that it can be propagated, and the tree at the Woodlands shows us how well it can grow, how strong it can grow in a city, and just how beautiful it can be.  It’s a marvelous tree that can be propagated well enough to have been in the horticultural trade for a few decades, and it’s a tree that can grow quickly and live for a pretty long time, somewhere around a century, or a bit more, in a cemetery in the midst of one of the largest cities of North America (Philadelphia, that is).

So why isn’t it planted more often?  Why do we see it so rarely?  The only other one that I’m aware of anywhere near to here is one near the Capitol building, on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  Why aren’t there more of them planted in the cities and suburbs of the mid-Atlantic states?

I don’t know.  Its relative, the Japanese zelkova, is an extraordinarily common street tree in Philadelphia, but the Caucasian zelkova is not.   But this is a tree that could be planted, could be propagated for sale and distribution, could be grown in parks and yards throughout Philadelphia – it’s a tree that we don’t see much of, but we could see more of.  We just have to propagate it, plant it, and let it grow.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban land management, see here:


To read about some more natural history and open areas in Philadelphia, including cemeteries – see here:

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

The trees of Monument Cemetery

Oakland Cemetery

Wissinoming, including Mt. Carmel cemetery

Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

And to read about some other trees, see here:

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The saucer magnolia

American Chestnut

The Callery pear

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

London planes and American sycamores

The sophora

Fringe tree

Feral landscaping

If you step into a cultivated landscape, like a cemetery for instance, and take a look around and see some trees, a general assumption, or a common one at least, is that those trees are there intentionally, that is, that it was decided by someone, or someones, to place them where they are.  For a tree to last from year to year it takes some amount of care, or at the very least it takes not cutting it down or pulling it up – and so if a tree is growing in a place that is landscaped, and the effort is being put into maintaining it, or at least it isn’t being removed, it would seem likely that it would have been placed there with some kind of thought – after all, who would take care of a tree if it hadn’t been meant to be there?  If they hadn’t meant for it to be there, wouldn’t they have gotten rid of it?  It just seems like common sense to assume that, in a cultivated landscape, if a tree is there, that it was put there by a person, that it was placed there by someone, that it was planted with intention.

This assumption, however, is wrong.  Last year, in July, I was out at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, in southwest Philadelphia.  Mt. Moriah was established in the 1850s and was designed as a “rural cemetery”, with an ornate entrance and winding roads going through it, like Laurel Hill in North Philadelphia, or Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  However, distinct from those rural cemeteries, Mt. Moriah was (and is) populated primarily with the middle class and the working class – in contrast to the more wealthy citizens of those other cities of the dead.

Mt. Moriah was originally entirely in Philadelphia, but it later expanded out of the city, reaching across Cobbs Creek and over into the Borough of Yeadon.  Now, it’s a few hundred acres of rolling hills, and gravestones, and monuments, with trees here and there dotting the landscape.  And in some places those dots come very close together.  This cemetery, for a number of reasons, has become somewhat overgrown, and in many places the plants have taken over and risen up and over the gravestones, crowding in on them, and filling over the space with green.

On the Philadelphia side however, when I was there last year, the grass had been mown, tangles had been taken out, and it was pretty well open, cut and cared for.  And so as we arrived, walking along Springfield Ave, I saw grass, and open space, and also trees here and there among the headstones.  I was interested to see what those trees were, that were planted there – since this cemetery has a different demographic than that of Laurel Hill or Mt. Auburn, I wondered what trees they would have used – would they have been similar, or perhaps even the same, kinds as those in the cemeteries with wealthier interments?  By seeing what persists in the environment, we can see what was done in the past, and so I was interested to see what the landscaping habits of the middle class had been, at Mt. Moriah.  What trees were there, what trees had been there?

As I got closer, I saw that those trees were mulberries, and black cherries, and they were, estimating by their size, probably about ten or twenty years old, or less.  And I realized that, because people hadn’t been planting mulberries or black cherries at those times when these trees began their lives, and because these are trees that seed in on their own quite readily, for these reasons I realized that these trees that were set among the landscape had most likely been set there without our help, without having been planted by the hand of man and woman.  They were little bits of feral landscape – though the land had been tamed and cultivated around them, cut back and trimmed, managed with thought, the tiny parcels on which those trees sat had been taken over by these plants whose seeds had just come in on their own, with help maybe of the wind, or of animals other than humans, but quite certainly without us.  They had arrived, and they had stayed, without regards to human needs or wants.

And so, I began to wonder – how long has this kind of feral landscaping been going on?   How long has it been a habit for landscapers to just kind of let a tree grow, to not cut it down, to allow it to live until it became a part, indistinguishable unless you look closely, from the sculpted environment around it?  And where else had this kind of element been a part of the landscape “design”?  At a more cultivated cemetery, where most of the plants had been planted, would we also find feral plots?

At the Woodlands Cemetery, there’s a mulberry that can answer these questions, at least a little bit.  The Woodlands, formerly the estate of William Hamilton, a wealthy Philadelphia gentleman and ardent plant collector of the late 18th and early 19th century, became a cemetery in 1840 – and it remains a cemetery to this day.  Rich with beautiful trees – red cedars, American hollies, and so much more, including the rarely seen Caucasian zelkova, the Woodlands provides a lasting record of how a cemetery was landscaped, at least for the tree part, over the last two centuries.

And there is a mulberry tree there – back behind the house, towards the river, you can go there and see it towering up over the path towards the back fence there.  It’s a very large tree, and from a cursory look it would appear to be part of the landscape just like the other trees there, just like the dogwoods and the pines and the English elms nearby.  But, because it is a mulberry, it most likely was not planted there by a person, and it represents a feral part of the landscape, a tiny plot of land that went from tamed to untamed and now sits among blades of grass that are regularly cut, and among trees that arrived there via nurseries and seedhouse – among plants that are cultivated sits a wild tree.

And so by looking at this mulberry, we can see that even the Woodlands, where most of the trees are planted, had some feral landscaping.  But when did this happen?  When did this mulberry start its life?  And more broadly, more generally, how long have wild trees been allowed to participate in cultivated landscapes without being uprooted or cut down?  And more specifically, how long has this wild tree, this mulberry, been occupying this feral patch of graveyard?

We can answer that question by coring the tree – that is, by extracting a thin length of wood from it, going perpendicular to the tree’s growth rings, and then sanding that thin length of wood down and counting the lines, lines that were part of that trees growth rings as it expanded outward as it has grown.  (we can also partially answer a part of those questions by looking for old photographs, such as this one, that shows that the area alongside the railroad tracks was unmown in 1955)

By doing that, we find that the mulberry is well over 80 years old.  We were able to count that many rings, and so get a good lower bound on the trees age.  However, that’s just the rings we could count (some of them were indistinct), and since we only got 14 7/8″ through (i.e., not all the way), it’s most likely quite a bit older – the entire tree is about 53.2″ dbh (diameter at breast height), and so we can roughly approximate it to be over a hundred years old.  This work, by the way, was done in collaboration with and due to the hardworking efforts of Ned Barnard, and Steve Minicola, and Joe Shapiro, and Jessica Baumert, and others who joined us on this day.

I’d like to get another core out of there before saying for sure how old this mulberry is (and just to get  a more precise date on it), but from this tree we can see that “feral landscaping” (that is, where plants that seeded in on their own, as I’m quite sure this mulberry did, are kept as part of a cultivated landscape) has been going on for at least a hundred years, at the Woodlands.  Even in a cemetery, life persists.

In human dominated landscapes, buildings are built and plants are planted, and so it’s easy to think that if a plant is in a park or a cemetery, or anywhere with wide open lawns and open spaces that are cut and cared for, and if that plant were to have grown to the size of a tree, well then it must have been planted there,  While plants quite literally take on a life of their own, and there may be weeds among the cracks and in the lawns, it just seems like common sense to assume that, in a cultivated landscape, if a plant is there and it is not removed for such a long time that it grows to become a tree, then it must have been put there by a person, placed there by someone.

However, as we look more closely and more broadly, we see that this is not always the case, that there are plants that have just kind of come in to these environments, and have been incorporated into cultivated landscapes and become pretty well indistinguishable from the trees that were planted there, and that it can be difficult to tell them apart unless you look closely, and that the wild, the cultivated, and the feral are not so different from one another.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:


The trees of Monument Cemetery

There used to be an enormous cemetery right in the middle of what is now Temple University’s main campus in North Philadelphia.  Filled with bodies and lined with trees, it stretched from its entrance at Broad and Berks all the way over to just about 17th Street – its northern boundary was Norris Street, it dipped south nearly to Montgomery Avenue, and it is nearly all gone today, covered over by pavement and playing fields, with some buildings that have been built there, too, and also evidence, that very few notice, of what was there before.

Those remains, all that remains there now, so far as we are aware, of that cemetery are two trees and a wall that hundreds if not thousands of people walk by everyday, not knowing what they are.

Monument Cemetery was founded in the late 1830s, before the extension north of the lines of Philadelphia’s central grid.  Those grid lines, from Front Street westward – Second, Third, on up, were laid out by Thomas Holme, William Penn’s surveyor, in the 1680s and imposed a European sense of order on the wilds of the new world.  Initially constrained by the limits of South Street to the south and Vine Street to the north, those lines later extended outwards, and now dominate North Philadelphia (and South Philadelphia, too).

But Monument Cemetery was built to a different set of angles – right ones coming off of Ridge Avenue, which lies to the south and to the west.  And its angles never quite fit with those that came along later, it always maintained its old fashioned skew, its borders were at a different angle from its beginning until its end.  Though it did get clipped by Holmes’ lines, it held on to its diagonality, with borders running Baroquely along their ways.  One border ran at roughly a 45 degree angle connecting Broad Street and Norris Street and another went along a similar angle from just east of 17th Street up to Norris – those borders, these two, are still there as property lines that you can see just southeast of George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, and that you can walk along just southwest of the houses at, on and near the corner of Broad and Norris.

This was a very different place when the cemetery was established.  In 1839 as Daniel Bowen wrote in his History of Philadelphia, Monument Cemetery was “sufficiently remote to prevent the apprehension that it may ever be encroached upon by our growing population”.  This part of the county was rural, but not too distant.  It was far enough away from the city to provide a country tone to the cemetery, however, it was still close enough to the city to allow people to walk there “without experiencing a sense of fatigue”, as Bowen put it.

And people would walk there – not only to visit passed relatives and other loved ones, but also to admire the landscape.  Hundreds of trees were planted there, and a variety of shrubs and other lower growing plants were there – flowers, evergreens, it would have been verdant even in winter.  The broad undulating landscape stretching out, carpeted with grass and green, spiked with trees and shrubs – it would have been a beautiful pastoral.

By the 1840s, it was already being drastically altered – as Wellington Williams notes in his 1849 Hand-Book for the Stranger in Philadelphia, Broad Street had been lowered by 8 to 10 feet, thereby effectively raising Monument Cemetery to well above the heads of any passersby.

And in the 1870s, streets were cut right through the cemetery – 15th Street, and 16th Street, and Norris Street were opened up “for the improvement of the neighborhood and the convenience of the public” (as per the Philadelphia Reports, 1879).  The managers of the cemetery had not buried bodies where the streets were to be, and so graves wouldn’t have had to have been moved, but the lines cut through would have irrevocably changed the uninterruptedly open character of the site.  North Philadelphia was no longer rural – the city had arrived.

At about this time, McKenzie’s nursery, which had been on the corner of Broad and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore), was torn down.  This nursery had most likely supplied much of the greenery that made Monument Cemetery the beautiful landscape that it was, but the land values would have gotten too high to continue economically justifying an agricultural use for land in this urbanizing district.  And so it passed.

But Monument Cemetery was still there, its massive gate towering above Broad and Berks, its tree lined central avenue leading west from there.

And near the turn of the last century, in 1903, there were rows of what look to be American sycamores along that avenue –

Berks Street through Monument Cemetery, looking west, March 1903 – image from PhillyHistory.org

These large trees look quite a bit like American sycamores, though it is very difficulty to tell without seeing the leaves and fruits – however, the rough bark going high up the trunk and the whitish underbark suggests that those trees are American sycamores.

There are also, one may notice, smaller trees interspersed among those larger trees. From the photograph, it is impossible to tell what they are.  However, if you go there now, to just east of 16th Street, where Berks would once have passed through, you’ll see two tall and thick London planes, about 15 or so feet from each other, oriented east-west, and right next to where the road through Monument Cemetery once was.  They are roughly the same size as trees we cored in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute, right around the corner from here, and so are probably about the same age – those ones at the Wagner were over 110 years old, and so those London planes at 16th and Berks probably are, too, and so would have been planted roughly around 1903, and at roughly the same spacing as the saplings in the picture above.

It is difficult to differentiate London planes from American sycamores, especially when they’re young, and so it may well have been that the landscape was intended to continue having American sycamores, but London planes were planted instead.  But for whatever reason, they are what is there now, these London planes – the only trees that remain from the time of the cemetery.

But they aren’t all that remain from the cemetery’s days – the tall wall along Broad Street, going north from Berks, and also south from Berks, is part of the old cemetery walls.  If you walk west from that now, the road will slope gently up – the same slope that led gently up as hearses brought the dead and carriages brought mourners here so very long ago.  How do we know it’s the same slope as then?  Well, trees don’t move much, and so from those London planes that are there now and were here when the cemetery was, they tell us the original grade of the cemetery – and it is about equal with the top of the slope of that streetway currently stretching west from Broad and Berks.

There are also walls on either side of that road, but they weren’t there in 1903.

Monument Cemetery gate, from the inside, looking east – March 1903. Image courtesy PhillyHistory.org

Just inside the cemetery gates, where that central avenue sloped down to the Broad Street that had been lowered some 60 years earlier, gentle banks led upwards to the cemetery’s ground level.  The walls that are there now, were not there then.

The cemetery continued into the 20th century.  Into the 1930s, there was still a treelined avenue passing through Monument Cemetery, with scattered trees to either side.  And the cemetery walls were still there, as was the cemetery itself.

Then, in the 1950s, Temple University was expanding and wanted to expand onto this site.  And they did.  Bodies were removed, tombstones were, too (to here, for example: http://www.lordwhimsy.com/philadelphia%E2%80%99s-lost-victorian-cemetery ), and yet again the landscape changed entirely, well, nearly entirely.  A couple of trees remain, as did the walls that once extended north and south from the cemetery’s main gates at Broad and Berks.  But the site is otherwise unrecognizable as the graveyard it once was.

Things change, as they always have.  Monument Cemetery was established in the 1830s on land that had not been a graveyard before, and through the 19th century, roads were cut, nurseries moved, bodies were buried –  and as the 20th century rolled forward, walls were built and the entire, nearly the entire, cemetery was removed.  But even through massive change, evidence of the past persists.  The trees and wall are still there, borders are still there as extant property lines.  Even though you wouldn’t notice it just from looking, the evidence is there, that a cemetery was here.  The evidence persists.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:


To read about some more natural history and open areas, including cemeteries, nearby – see here:

Oakland Cemetery

Wissinoming, including Mt. Carmel cemetery

Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

The yard of the Wagner Free Institute

For more about Monument Cemetery: